Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

Author: Maureen Ogle
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.
ISBN: 0-15-101012-9

In the 1830s, few Americans had ever heard of, let alone tasted, beer. At that time, rum and whiskey were the favorite beverages of the American drinking public, with English ale running a distant third. Over the next half-century, however, thousands of enterprising German immigrants transformed American tastes so that, by 1880, beer had decisively supplanted all other liquors as the American national beverage. Ambitious Brew is an engaging account of that transformation.

The fashioning of an industry required the development of numerous technological and commercial innovations. Starting out as small operators that supplied local saloons, early brewers had to devise ways to ensure consistent quality in every batch of beer they made. Upon solving that problem, brewers who expanded their operations had to resolve issues related to the preservation, distribution and packaging of their products. They had to extend the shelf life of beer so that it would be consumable when it arrived at distant destinations. This was accomplished by experimenting with recipes and by using refrigerated railroad cars for shipping. Moreover, reliable transportation and sales networks had to be cultivated. And, to protect their reputations and prevent saloon keepers from diluting their brews, or replacing them with lower quality swill, brewers began shipping large quantities of their beer in labeled bottles rather than kegs. Thus, as the brewing industry expanded, secondary industries grew alongside it.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a growing temperance movement threatened to dismantle the empires of such brewing giants as Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Schlitz and others. The brewers, aware that taxes on their products accounted for more than one-third of the American government’s revenues, paid little attention to their critics. Their security was shattered in 1913, when Congress ratified the Sixteenth Amendment that established the income tax as a major source of revenue. This amendment, in conjunction with the cumulative successes of the temperance movement over the previous several decades, made conditions favorable for the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the production, sale and consumption of all alcoholic beverages in the United States. In January 1919, Prohibition became the law of the land.

Prohibition (enacted in 1919) was in effect from 1920 until 1933. During that time, some brewers kept their businesses alive by producing soft drinks and “near” (non-alcoholic) beer. Others diversified their companies and produced a variety of goods. Needless to say, most brewers did not survive. Those who did discovered that American culture had changed dramatically in a short fourteen year span. The American public had developed a taste for Coca Cola rather than beer. An entire generation had grown up without ever tasting beer. Thus, in the post-Prohibition era, brewers had to cultivate new images and new markets for their products. These struggles continue to this day, as American liquor consumption is still lower than it was before Prohibition.

The period from the 1930s through the 1960s was a time of consolidation. Many small and medium sized breweries went out of business or were bought out by larger companies. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, this trend toward increased centralization was countered by the home brewing movement and the microbrewing industry. Currently, even though Anheuser-Busch and Miller dominate American brewing (these two companies sell over 50% of all beer consumed in the USA), small and regional brewers are making a comeback. In the early twenty-first century, large and small brewers are learning from each other and rejuvenating the brewing industry. In Ogle’s opinion, an exciting future is open for business to the next generation of innovative brewers.

Carefully researched, filled to the brim with technical information and populated with colorful personalities, Ambitious Brew provides a unique lens through which to examine American culture. Ambitious Brew is more than a story about the indelible imprint German immigrants made on their adopted land. And it is more than a tale of how American consumers prompted those immigrants to adapt traditional products for new palates. Indeed, at its heart, Ambitious Brew is the fascinating story of how distinct cultural features have blended to enrich the fabric of a vibrant society. It is a story that needed to be told, and Ogle has told it very well. Beer aficionados and readers interested in popular culture and history will enjoy Ambitious Brew.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Darwin Conspiracy

Author: John Darnton
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN: 1-4000-3483-3

Emerging from a self-imposed exile in the Galapagos Islands, biologist Hugh Kellem scours British libraries in search of a research project that will reveal something new about the life and work of his hero, Charles Darwin. His goal is to establish his credentials as a significant Darwin scholar. Elizabeth Dulcimer, rumored to be one of Darwin’s descendants, is pursuing a similar project for personal, as well as professional, reasons. As Hugh and Elizabeth become better acquainted, and eventually fall in love, they decide to work together on their parallel projects. Hugh and Elizabeth’s story, which is completely fictional, provides the outer frame of this tripartite narrative.

The second storyline is an account of Darwin’s five-year voyage aboard the Beagle. As this narrative unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Darwin and some of his shipmates conspired to hide significant facts about certain events that transpired during the voyage. Revelation of these facts would cast a long shadow over Darwin’s subsequent life, work and reputation. Of course, this narrative slowly builds throughout the book and the precise nature of the conspiracy does not become clear until very late in the story. This storyline is a well-composed blend of fact and fiction. Darnton adroitly builds his fictional episodes upon solid historical foundations. Thus, he provides riveting, vivid glimpses of life aboard an early nineteenth century ship and encounters between English explorer/conquerors and indigenous peoples of South America and the Pacific Islands.

The third storyline is revealed through the diaries of Darwin’s daughter, Elizabeth. These diaries have lain undiscovered for just over a century when Hugh and his companion find them hidden amongst packets of discarded letters and documents in a musty archive. Elizabeth, who was quite young when she realized that her father was hiding an important secret, records her quest to uncover the truth in a set of diaries that she keeps intermittently over a number of years. When she uncovers the secret as her father lies near death, she notes it dutifully. As the book closes, Elizabeth Dulcimer and Hugh Kellem prepare to reveal the details of the Darwin Conspiracy to an unsuspecting public.

The historical Darwin actually did have a daughter named Elizabeth, but very little is known about her. Thus, she is the perfect character to provide Darnton’s view into Victorian culture and family life. These passages, similar to those that recount the Beagle’s adventures, offer an intriguing mix of fact and fiction.

Since this is a work of fiction, tidy coincidences are allowed and even expected. Thus, the reader is not surprised to learn that the young scholar, Elizabeth Dulcimer, is Elizabeth Darwin’s great-granddaughter. Additionally, the correspondences between the family conflicts that drove Hugh to exile and those of the Darwin family are obvious. Still, Darnton has constructed a captivating mystery around a well-known historical figure. He has provided intriguing accounts of what life may have been like aboard the Beagle, and of how life may have been in the Darwin household. This fictional work is grounded firmly enough in history to provide clear insights into Victorian morality, British class distinctions and the cultural and religious controversies that Darwin set into motion with his theory of natural selection. Since these controversies persist today, nearly 150 years after Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, this book has a sense of timelessness that makes it a compelling read.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Of Blood and Blackwater

Author: T.C. Heffernan
Publisher: AuthorHouse
ISBN: 1-4259-3445-5

Ethnobotanist Gareth McKenna is troubled by terrifying nightmares. His terror mounts when he realizes that his nightmares are connected to the vicious murders of several young women in his hometown. Portland police detective Armando (Army) Padilla and FBI profiler Caroline Baxter’s investigation is stymied until a vital piece of evidence points toward Gareth as their prime suspect. Gareth’s journey to stay out of their reach and identify the killer leads him deep into the Amazonian jungle, to the place where, several years earlier, he completed the research that led to his life’s work. Gareth’s girlfriend, Karin, does not quite understand what he is experiencing. Nevertheless, she steadfastly assists him in his quest to clear his name. As the story ends, with a hint that Army and Caroline may one day become lovers, Gareth and Karin embark on a honeymoon journey along the Amazon River.

Of Blood and Blackwater is a very good book, particularly for a first novel. Heffernan uses a deft balance of action and dialog to develop his characters. All of them, even the murderer, capture and hold the reader’s attention and empathy. Gareth and Karin’s relationship survives a horrible test of love and trust. Army and Caroline have to deal with issues related to their past relationships and losses before their relationship can grow. Even the murderer, as thoroughly chilling as Hannibal Lecter, elicits sympathy as he desperately hopes to find love and companionship with one of his victims. My only disappointment with Heffernan’s character development concerns his use of Marvin Hayes, the sleazy reporter, รก la paparazzo, who exposes Gareth to public humiliation and scrutiny. His appearances, while spectacular, are frustratingly stereotypical.

In addition to drawing good characters, Heffernan paces his story well. He provides enough description to draw the reader into the book’s locales yet avoids getting bogged down in minutiae. He uses dialog to reveal the minds and hearts of his characters and to provide information that moves the story forward. Even though the action never falters, the reader never feels as if the author is rushing ahead too quickly and omitting necessary details. Back story scenes are woven into the storyline skillfully, so that they do not strike the reader as filler material or tangents. Heffernan strikes the right balance between back story, action, dialog and description to keep the story moving forward at all times.

My only significant criticism of this book is that it has several typographical errors of the type that typically occur when drafting, refining and editing on a computer. Diligent attention to the fine points of proofreading and editing would raise the standard of Heffernan’s work, which is already quite high, considerably higher.

Heffernan acquired his knowledge of botany and geography through his many personal and professional experiences as a scientist and world traveler. This knowledge is displayed tastefully, never pedantically, throughout the book. The details of the narrative ring true and the drama engrosses the reader deeply. This certainly is a book that thriller lovers will not want to miss. I, for one, will be on the lookout for future books from this author.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Expendability Doctrine

Author: Patrick Mackeown
Publisher: BookScape
ISBN: 978-0-9554328-0-4

Keith Connors, a wealthy oil industry consultant, was a nasty brute. It’s no wonder that his wife, Hilary, wanted him dead. Before investigators can interrogate her, however, she leaves Britain, gathers belongings from her French home and heads out to assume a new identity in Libya.

Upon arriving in Libya, Hilary quickly loses control of her life. She witnesses a murder, then is arrested and incarcerated in a horrific prison. In the midst of local unrest, Hilary and several other prisoners manage to escape from the prison, steal a truck and safely make their way to Algeria.

In the meantime, investigators in Great Britain uncover disturbing details about Keith’s business dealings. Their discoveries lead them to reconsider what role, if any, Hilary may have played in his murder. It is only in the book’s final pages that one learns whether Keith’s murder was a crime of passion or a matter of expediency.

Notwithstanding the fact that it contains several intriguing elements, The Expendability Doctrine is a rather dry story. For one thing, it’s difficult to identify who is supposed to be the main character. Is it Hilary? Is it Inspector Hawthorne? Is it Keith? Neither these nor any other characters are sufficiently developed to engage the reader’s empathy, though Hawthorne comes closest to doing so. Keith is too unlovable and Hilary is too unfathomable to be of much interest.

For another thing, the connections between the two storylines, Hilary’s Libyan escapades and Hawthorne’s British sleuthing are unclear. The main questions that drive the story, of course, are, “who killed Keith Connors?” and “why did he/she/they kill him?” Obviously, Hawthorne needs to solve his case, which he does. And equally obviously, Hilary needs, or believes she needs, to escape arrest and prosecution. Yet the story ends without clarifying what happens to Hilary. Does she return to Britain? If so, is she arrested and tried? If not, why not? Does she wander the globe for the rest of her days? All of these possibilities are still open when the book ends. This is a major omission, because the question of Hilary’s guilt is precisely where the two storylines meet! Clarifying this connection is essential to resolving both storylines in a satisfactory manner.

Overall, The Expendability Doctrine is a moderately rewarding read. Mackeown has a good imagination and he handles the English language fairly well. With continued growth, he could be an author to watch in the future.

Friday, December 15, 2006


Author: W. William Winokur
Publisher: Kissena Park Press
ISBN: 0-9768508-0-X

The Ice Woman. That’s what her partners at Schroeder, Wilkes and Barron call Marianna Gardner. It is an appropriate sobriquet for a woman who was too busy practicing law to attend her father’s funeral.

While sifting through her father’s belongings, Marianna comes across a reminder of a once cherished but long-forgotten family friend. Determined to re-establish some connection with her past, she finds “Uncle Ion” in a shabby nursing home. As they rekindle their relationship, Marianna examines her life and slowly realizes that she is not fond of the person she has become. Her journey of self-discovery accelerates when she and Uncle Ion travel to Greece so that he may conclude some personal business.

Marianna’s Grecian sojourn is far from peaceful. As her respect for the people around her grows, so does her disdain for her own life. Moreover, upon unearthing several old journals, Marianna uncovers startling truths about Uncle Ion’s life and her own origins. Shortly before he dies, Uncle Ion unravels the mysteries of the journals and his complicated connection to Marianna. The story concludes as, armed with new insights, Marianna gathers the courage to make peace with herself, break free from the chains that bind her and build a new life.

A recounting of Pheidippides’ mythic journeys frames the stories of Marianna and Ion. The parallel accounts of these varied journeys complement each other well. In order to remain free, Pheidippides and his countrymen must defeat the Persian invaders who threaten to enslave them. His journey shapes a nation. In order to die free, Ion must reveal his ties with Marianna. His journey shapes Marianna’s future. In order to become free, Marianna must relinquish the life that corrupts her. Her journey depicts the universal quest for meaning.

Readers who like epic tales of struggle and triumph will enjoy Marathon. This lengthy (nearly 500 pages), engrossing novel is a touching tribute to a teacher, Ion Theodore, who influenced the author’s life in an extraordinary way. W. William Winokur weaves fact, fiction, poetry, biography, history and mythology into a beautiful story that sensitively explores eternal questions about life’s meanings. A first-time novelist, Winokur has established a high standard for himself. His prose is graceful and poetic, his images are vivid and his characters are interesting. Imagine sitting at Ion’s feet as he teaches history, philosophy and art as a seamless whole. Feel Pheidippides’ exhaustion as he runs over mountains, his lips filled with messages that will determine the fate of a nation. Suffer Marianna’s grief as she examines a life filled with much regret and little honor. And most importantly, rejoice as Marianna travels from desolation through resurrection to redemption, for her triumph gives hope to all who are compelled to traverse the dark places of their souls.

Monday, December 11, 2006

A Scientific Search for Religious Truth

Author: Phil Mundt, Ph.D.
Publisher: Bridgeway Books
ISBN: 978-1-933538-61-7

Phil Mundt, a retired geologist reared in a Protestant family, spent four years researching and writing this book, in which he endeavors to
  • reconcile misunderstandings between science and religion and
  • answer religious questions that he wrestled with throughout his life.
The book’s sixteen chapters are divided into two sections. In the first section, Mundt discusses evolutionary theories and provides historical overviews of the three major world religions that arose in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Mundt accepts the general validity of the Big Bang theory, but, citing mathematical evidence, disputes that the universe could have arisen by chance. He argues that scientists should accept intelligent design theory as a plausible alternative to the chance and complexity theories that are currently favored by many. Mundt contends that many secular humanist scientists are intellectually narrow-minded and dogmatically predisposed to reject all theories that allow, in any way, for divine activity in the universe. Mundt takes such scientists to task for rejecting out of hand all theories that do not rest on premises that are identical to, or at least compatible with, theirs.

Mundt also accepts the general validity of evolutionary theories and urges conservative religionists to cast off their dogmatic predispositions and stop rejecting all evidence that contradicts a literal interpretation of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. He notes that many contemporary Jewish rabbis and Christian theologians interpret these chapters poetically and allegorically rather than literally. He also cites documents issued by Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II that affirm the validity of evolutionary theories. Mundt proposes that religionists could extend an olive branch in this debate by offering a “scientific paraphrase” of Genesis that incorporates accepted scientific facts, such as the age of the earth, etc.

The historical discussions of Middle Eastern religions require a shift from the methods and propositions of natural science to those of social science. Thus, even though Mundt presents a good case, from a social scientific perspective, for accepting the validity of Jesus’ resurrection, natural scientists will not find this argument persuasive. Nevertheless, Mundt is to be commended for including relevant data from a range of disciplines in his studies.

The final chapter of this section, entitled, “Final Thoughts,” rehashes, frequently verbatim, material from the previous chapters. The chapter should have been excluded, as it did not enhance Mundt’s argument in any way.

The book’s second section, labeled a Scientific Annex, provides much interesting material regarding the evolution of the universe, the evolution of life on earth and ongoing scientific investigations in genetics. Although this material is fascinating, it does not advance Mundt’s stated purpose of reconciling science and religion. If this section were deleted, Mundt’s argument would not be hindered. Mundt acknowledges this in the book’s introduction, where he states that this material is merely included for those who are interested in reading further about the science involved in his arguments.

Notwithstanding Mundt’s purpose, certain scientific and religious tenets will never be reconciled conclusively. Jesus’ resurrection, for example, was a singular event that can not be replicated and tested under laboratory conditions. And the initiation of the Big Bang may never be scientifically determined either, as it was also a singular event that cannot be observed or replicated in accordance with current scientific norms. The truth of both of these propositions, to name just two, can only be inferred from available evidence. Jesus’ resurrection continues to be a bone of contention across religions and the precise mechanisms of evolution continue to be debated among scientists. These controversies, and others, are likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

A Scientific Search for Religious Truth offers intriguing material that will interest readers seeking a better understanding of the historical and contemporary conflicts between science and religion.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Alone in Eden

Author: Stephen R. Pastore
Publisher: Cohort Press

ISBN: 0-9777196-0-X

Commencing in the pristine Garden of Eden, then moving quickly to the tragic event of Original Sin and its consequences for subsequent human history, Pastore’s tale explores cosmological, theological and anthropological questions that have puzzled humankind since the beginning of time.

The story is narrated by Traveler, the first-born son of Adam and Eve. Traveler’s idyllic life changes forever when he witnesses his parents eating fruit from the forbidden tree. Having run away from the horrific scene, Traveler awakens one day to find himself and his small dog, Zas, alone in a cave. An angel explains that his parents have been banished from the Garden and that Traveler and Zas will have to make their own way in a dramatically altered world.

Having once played freely with all sorts of creatures in the Garden, Traveler is disappointed to discover that many animals now fear him. Moreover, in the newly ordered world, many creatures must hunt and consume flesh in order to survive. These and countless other contrasts with his former life give Traveler many occasions for deliberation. Note, for example, what Traveler says about freedom and responsibility:

Where life in the Garden had no pattern and my parents and I could follow or not follow our whims and all things were provided . . . life in the Valley required a routine and tasks needed to be performed. . . . I realized that I had control over my own life but with that control came duty (p. 56).

When the adult Traveler falls in love, he gains this insight into relationships:

Earthly love must never supercede my devotion to God, not because God wanted to be loved above all others, but because God did not want me to lose my self, my soul, which was his greatest gift, for love of another. Such love is not love, but obsession. And in obsession we surrender our free will (p. 139).

Upon discovering ancient dinosaur bones, Traveler and his son reach this conclusion regarding evolution:

When the earth was created . . . [God] knew that the earth would be forever changing and that for life to continue as part of His plan, it must adapt to the world or be forever lost (pp. 160-161).

These few quotes provide just a small sample of the many philosophical and theological concepts that Pastore explores throughout his tale. Even though Pastore has clothed his ideas in the robe of fantasy, this book should not be regarded as mere entertainment. Pastore has packed more profound ideas into this story than many preachers pack into a year’s worth of sermons. While the reader probably will not agree with all of Pastore’s views, he or she should enjoy wrestling with them.

Alone in Eden is beautifully written. Traveler’s voice and tone are perfectly suited for his character and Pastore’s lush descriptions pull the reader fully into the scene. The story is well-paced and it never loses momentum. My one criticism is that Traveler is too far removed from much of the action. He witnesses much evil, yet always manages to avoid engaging in conflict himself. Traveler is wise, patient and sympathetic, yet somehow aloof. Nevertheless, he does successfully draw and hold the reader in the story.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys spiritual fantasy. If you like the works of C.S. Lewis, you’ll probably enjoy Alone in Eden.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

the lost years

Authors: Kristina Wandziak & Constance Curry
Publisher: Jeffers Press
ISBN: 0-9777618-1-9

Told from the complementary perspectives of an addict and her mother, The Lost Years is a rich chronicle of drug and alcohol addiction and recovery from those addictions. Kristina Wandziak describes her long, painful slide into addiction, crime and life on the streets. Constance Curry, Kristina’s mother, describes the denial and co-dependence by which she unwittingly, and certainly unwillingly, facilitated her daughter’s addictions. Together, these joint accounts reveal the personal and familial complexities that contribute to and derive from addiction.

To all outward appearances, Kristina Wandziak lived a charmed life. She lived in a beautiful home in a picturesque town near San Francisco. She was intelligent, athletic, pretty and popular. Similarly, Constance Curry appeared to have the perfect home and family. This picture of perfection was badly marred, however, by the presence of a verbally abusive, alcoholic husband and father. Behind the closed doors of their lovely home, Kristina, her three siblings and Constance lived in inexorable fear and tension.

Kristina was thirteen years old when she sneaked her first swig of vodka from her parents’ liquor supply. This is Kristina’s account of that first drink:

I lifted the glass to my mouth, and slowly let the liquor
slide over my tongue. . . . It was wonderful. . . .
I felt incredible. . . . Nothing was ever the same
after that night. I had found the secret to life. . . .
Increasingly, the desire to drink grew strong in me (p. 9).

Constance noticed her daughter’s odd behavior that night but chose to ignore it because she was busy hosting a party. She tells it this way:

I went downstairs . . . and I noticed
Kristina was acting a little funny.
But I was wrapped up in the party,
so I didn’t dwell on it. . . .
I felt a queasiness in my stomach, but . . .
I didn’t know how to listen to my gut.
I wish I had listened (p. 12).

As the story continues, Kristina describes her physical, emotional, social and psychological decline. When her parents place her in rehabilitation programs, she promptly runs away. She drops out of school and descends into a life of crime to support her habits. At age seventeen, she sees abortion as the only solution to an unwanted pregnancy. Eventually, she ends up living on the streets of San Francisco: homeless, filthy, isolated and filled with self-loathing.

As Kristina declines deeper into addiction, Constance struggles with the effects Kristina’s addictions have on her and her other three children. Constance slowly realizes that she must make two radical changes in her life if she is to save her remaining children from ruin. First, she must divorce her abusive husband. Second, Kristina must not be allowed to have any further contact with the family until she agrees to seek treatment for her addictions. As painful as these decisions are, they ultimately enable Constance, Kristina and the other children in the family to rebuild their lives.

Finally, at age twenty-one, Kristina willingly enters a rehabilitation program and her mother agrees to pay for her treatment. Moreover, Kristina’s mother and siblings attend group therapy sessions in which they and Kristina examine the issues that led to and arose from Kristina’s destructive lifestyle. Kristina’s recovery is long, slow and difficult. She discovers that giving up drugs and alcohol is only a small part of the battle she must fight to build a life. She is mortified when she tries to complete job applications and realizes

I couldn’t get past “name.”
I had no address, no phone number,
no previous work experience and no education.
I could not put down one person as a reference.
I felt so lame and helpless (p. 202).

Fortunately, Kristina’s story does not end there. She gets a job and eventually moves into increasingly responsible positions. Now, she runs a successful addictions intervention program. Constance, similarly, has taken the lessons learned from her ordeal and become a specialist and lecturer in the fields of addiction and family recovery.

The Lost Years is a gritty, often grim, account of the horrors of addiction. More importantly, though, it is a book about hope and redemption. Kristina can never relive the years of her youth that she wasted on drugs, alcohol and crime. Constance can never recover the sleepless nights she lost wondering if her daughter was alive, warm or safe. Nevertheless, both of them have moved beyond addiction and its effects, beyond the trials of recovery, to lives of contentment, fulfillment and purpose. That inspirational message is the reason this book should be read by anyone whose life is affected by the tragedy of addiction.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Thanks for the Memories: Love, Sex & WWII

Author: Jane Mersky Leder
Publisher: Praeger Publishers
ISBN: 0-275-98879-1

The USA’s official involvement as a combatant nation in World War II lasted just over 3.5 years. During that period, approximately 16 million young adults, males and females, enlisted in the various branches of the US armed forces. They trained in military bases scattered across the USA. They served in Europe, Africa and the Pacific. They left loved ones behind and met loved ones abroad. Their lives were brutally disrupted and they inevitably disrupted the lives of others. In Thanks for the Memories, Jane Mersky Leder examines the numerous ways in which World War II changed American soldiers, families, communities and culture. She explicates the war’s immediate effects on American society and argues that wartime disruptions laid the foundations for the later cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.

Using material gleaned from magazine articles, news clips, contemporary advertisements, hundreds of interviews with elderly veterans and dozens of intimate letters, Leder immerses readers in the mindset of mid-twentieth century America. She describes the rapid alteration of social and sexual mores as young men and women, liberated from the customary constraints of family and community life, and spurred by deep uncertainty about their futures, explored their burgeoning sexuality. She describes hastily contracted marriages and the ordeals of wives who followed their husbands across the USA from one base to another, never knowing when overseas assignments would precipitate long separations. She describes the loneliness of soldiers spread around the globe, the longings of spouses left behind, and the inevitable infidelities that followed on all fronts. She discusses cultural and military prejudices against gays, lesbians and ethnic Americans, particularly African Americans, who fought for democracy abroad yet endured fierce obstacles in their own pursuits of life, love and a little bit of happiness. She discusses the ravages of sexually transmitted diseases and the dilemmas of unwanted pregnancies. And she describes, heartbreakingly, the difficult transitions of soldiers who returned home to wives who were reluctant to leave the workforce and surrender the delicious independence they had tasted for the first time in their lives. In short, Leder examines every aspect of love, sex and marriage as they were transformed throughout and after World War II.

In addition to being based on a substantial, well-documented body of research data, Thanks for the Memories is very well written. Leder captures the reader’s attention quickly and keeps the reader engaged throughout a well constructed, well paced presentation. The material is appropriately balanced between statistical information, scholarly discussion and heartwarming anecdotes. The text is enhanced by two photo essays depicting wartime couples, advertisements and celebrities. The stories of the photo subjects are shared throughout the book and the significance of the celebrities and advertisements is explained at appropriate points. All of the material – photos, interviews, advertisements, personal correspondence, etc. – is well integrated and easily digested.

Thanks for the Memories is one of those rare books that one can either read quickly or savor slowly. At times it is fun and witty; at other times it is poignant and thought-provoking. All who read it will gain insights into the natures of humanity, war, peace and love. Readers who enjoy social history, as well as World War II buffs, will want to include it on their reading lists.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Behind the Yellow Filter

Author: Stuart Held
Publisher: Outskirts Press, Inc.
ISBN: 1-59800-290-2

When Robby Schein accepts a job with The Allied Group (TAG), Inc., he expects to spend his life selling cameras. After six months of successful employment, he learns that the company’s mission of selling cameras is a cover for its real task: to use photography as a tool for gathering intelligence for the American government. Eighteen months later, Robby is promoted and trained for his first field mission. The CIA needs him to travel to Japan, where several companies are building extraordinary photographic equipment that shows great promise for use in amateur, professional and military applications.

Robby travels to Japan and meets with the top representatives of Nikon, Fuji, Mamiya and Tamron, with whom he conducts legitimate business for TAG. Robby also meets with members of the Japanese navy to learn about lenses they have developed for taking photos through submarine periscopes. He quickly discovers that several other countries (China, the Soviet Union and East Germany) are also interested in the new photographic technologies. A bidding war erupts and events turn violent when the Yakuza (a Japanese crime syndicate) gets involved. The story ends with Robby’s successful completion of his mission and his promotion to vice president of TAG, Inc.

Much of Robby’s story is taken from the author’s own experiences as a marketer of photographic equipment. Held has traveled extensively in Japan and his knowledge of Japanese culture is delightfully evident throughout the story. The book also includes many tidbits of information about the photographic industry. Held has a wealth of intriguing information to share about Japan and its rise to prominence in the international photographic industry.

Generally speaking, Held has successfully put together some basic nuts and bolts in this book. Robby Schein is an appealing character, the story’s plot holds together fairly well and Held has interesting material with which to work. Unfortunately, the book suffers from serious editorial flaws. Held’s writing style is unpolished and the book is hampered by numerous grammatical and syntactical errors. Since Outskirts Press is a venue for self-publication, I do not know what sort of editorial assistance, if any, they provided for this book. If his editor is employed by Outskirts Press, Held should consider finding another publisher for his future works. If his editor was acquired through some other avenue, Held needs to find another one.

One final observation I will make is that the book’s title makes me uneasy. Notwithstanding the fact that an actual yellow photographic filter plays a small role in the story, I can’t disregard the historically racist connotations of the word “yellow” when discussing east Asians, particularly the Japanese. I am perplexed as to how and why Held selected this particular title, which strikes me as a poorly chosen one.

Readers who enjoy espionage stories, and who can tolerate its rough edges, may find Behind the Yellow Filter an intriguing read.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Cellini Masterpiece

Author: Raymond John
Publisher: North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc.
ISBN: 0-87839-233-5

Of the thousands of books I’ve read, this is the only one set in Malta. Enticingly located in the Mediterranean, the island of Malta clearly is an appealing backdrop for a romance novel. Alternatively, a story rich in history is plausible. But I never envisioned Malta as the stage for an adventure involving twenty-first century terrorism. It takes a writer with Raymond John’s fertile imagination to artfully blend all of these ingredients – a generous helping of romance, a dash of history, a drop of terrorism, and a sprig of mystery – into a pleasing story.

Rick Olsen, a thirty-two year old prairie restorer (can you imagine a more innocuous profession?), travels to Malta to help his brother, Stef, unravel a mystery involving a precious gold sculpture. Rick’s troubles begin as soon as he steps off the plane. First, he is mugged at the airport. Then, he discovers that Stef has disappeared. Fortunately, Rick meets Caterina, an attractive cab driver whom he hires to be his chauffeur while he searches for his brother.

As Rick and Caterina search for Stef, they soon realize that Stef’s discovery is the key to a perilous mystery. Since Rick has some military experience and Caterina knows a few wily tricks, they cope surprisingly well with a variety of life-threatening situations. The fact that Rick knows a talented computer nerd who feeds them vital information doesn’t hurt either. The search for Stef takes Rick and Caterina all over the island, a circumstance that allows John to sprinkle the story with intriguing historical and geographical tidbits. As they trek and search – and fall in love – Rick and Caterina uncover a terrorist plot that endangers the entire Mediterranean region. By the story’s end, the farmer and the cabbie (surely the most unlikely pair of action heroes ever conceived) recover Stef, solve the mystery of the sculpture and foil the terrorists.

The Cellini Masterpiece, Raymond John’s first novel, is a captivating story. The two principal characters are enchanting and John’s portrayal of Rick and Caterina’s romance is exceptionally well done. He skillfully evokes intense passion without descending into prurience. Unfortunately, the book’s secondary characters are not nearly as alluring as the principals. The villains are particularly dull and stereotypical.

John’s flair for descriptive detail embeds the reader in Maltese culture, architecture and history. Thanks to John, Malta is now on my list of places I must visit before I die. I want to explore the island as Rick and Caterina did. I want to taste the cuisine they savored. I want to see the sunsets, smell the salty air and feel the breezes as they did. In short, I want to sample Rick and Caterina’s experience, minus the intrigue and danger, of course.

Overall, The Cellini Masterpiece is a rather good first novel. I hope to see more work by Raymond John in the future. Readers who like adventures set in exotic locales will enjoy this book.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Dark Journey Deep Grace

Author: Roy Ratcliff (with Lindy Adams)
Publisher: Leafwood Publishers
ISBN: 0-9767790-2-1

One phone call in April 1994 changed Roy Ratcliff’s life forever. The call came from a fellow minister who wanted to know if Ratcliff would preside over the baptism of an inmate who was incarcerated in a prison near his home. Ratcliff had never had any experience with prison ministry. Nevertheless, he agreed to drive to the prison and meet with the prisoner. Upon being satisfied that the prisoner had a proper understanding of baptism’s purpose, Ratcliff would make all the necessary arrangements. Ratcliff just needed one more piece of information: who was the prisoner making the request? The answer: Jeffrey Dahmer.

Ratcliff, like everyone else living in Wisconsin in the 1990s, was familiar with Dahmer’s horrific story of torture, murder, necrophilia and cannibalism. When Ratcliff met Dahmer in late April 1994, he was surprised at Dahmer’s quiet demeanor, his fairly lean frame and his small hands. Satisfied that Dahmer understood the meaning of baptism and that his desire was sincere, Ratcliff made arrangements for Dahmer’s baptism in May 1994.

After Dahmer’s baptism, Ratcliff continued meeting with him for weekly Bible studies and discussions. Little did they know that, in late November 1994, their friendship would be severed by Dahmer’s brutal murder at the hands of another prisoner.

His friendship with Dahmer changed Ratcliff’s life in several ways. First, the responses of other Christians to Ratcliff’s ministry with Dahmer challenged Ratcliff to think deeply about the concepts of mercy, grace and justice. Some Christians encouraged Ratcliff’s efforts, others believed Ratcliff was being conned and still others believed Dahmer was too evil to be forgiven. Second, Ratcliff’s belief in Dahmer’s sincerity and his friendship with Dahmer led him to believe more deeply in God’s unconditional love. Third, following his ministry with Dahmer, Ratcliff became involved in several other prison ministries, activities that he is still engaged in a dozen years later.

Ratcliff states unequivocally that God can and does forgive the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world. Ratcliff also states unequivocally that divine forgiveness does not expunge the need for earthly justice. Ratcliff believes that people who cannot understand these distinctions are confused about the natures of both God and society. Social justice required, rightly, according to Ratcliff, that Dahmer should serve out his sentence regardless of his spiritual condition. Ratcliff reports that Dahmer also accepted his penalty as a just one. Neither of these men ever viewed spiritual conversion as a “get out of jail free” card. According to Ratcliff:

“A gross misunderstanding of what Jeff’s baptism
accomplished was apparent.

No one said Jeff was no longer guilty of his crimes.
He would not be released from prison, nor should he be,
dependent upon his baptism.

Baptism does not take away crimes. It addresses sins.
The issue in baptism doesn’t concern justice in the society.
It concerns the forgiveness of God. . . .
Jeff’s crimes cry out for justice. . . .
No one understood this quite as well as Jeff” (pp. 85-86).

Dark Journey Deep Grace is a profoundly moving story, an unpretentious chronicle of an unlikely friendship that developed around a seemingly unlikely faith. Christians who enjoy stories of personal testimony will find this book interesting, as it offers insights into the spiritual lives of two men, Ratcliff and Dahmer. They should also find it uplifting, because it offers the promise of present and future redemption to all people, regardless of their past transgressions. Finally, readers of any faith, and even people with no faith, who read this book will be challenged to reconsider their ideas about God, evil and justice.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Elizabeth George: American Mistress of the English Cottage Mystery

Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley/Barbara Havers series is one of my favorites. Her most recent entry into the series, What Came Before He Shot Her, takes an interesting departure from the previous books, as most of the primary characters that she has developed throughout the series do not appear at all in this one. Well, Helen appears long enough to get shot. And Deborah hangs around long enough to park the car while Helen gets shot. The only other regulars who appear, Havers and Nkata, make their brief, low-key entrance in the book’s final scene. Nevertheless, George’s fans, knowing how this book’s main character is connected to the overall series, will not be able to resist this one. For the main character of this book, Joel Campbell, is implicated in the heartbreaking event that marked the climax of the previous one: the brutal murder of Helen Lynley.

Elizabeth George has a tremendous following around the world. Her reputation is well earned, for she writes exquisitely, though not quite as well as P.D. James, the unmatched mistress of this genre. She researches each book thoroughly; consequently, every story provides substantial food for thought. What Came Before He Shot Her clearly demonstrates George’s sensitivity to the sociological and psychological dynamics that, all too often, reach tragic climaxes on busy city streets and in seemingly quiet rural villages.

So, what do I like about the series? And what improvements would I like to see in future books?

First, the primary characters in the series, Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers, are fascinating. Lynley, an inspector at New Scotland Yard, is Lord Asherton, a member of the British nobility. He is handsome, well educated, articulate and socially polished. He is a good man who continually wrestles to control his inbred elitist tendencies. He has largely outgrown the selfishness of his youth, but he is far from perfect. He is likeable, yet, at times, infuriatingly arrogant. His partner, Barbara Havers, is his opposite in every way. Havers grew up in a working class home in a family scarred by tragedy. She is not physically attractive, and is neither well educated nor socially polished. She is, in fact, socially inept, a circumstance that often lands her in personal and professional difficulties. She is shrewd and intelligent, however, a keen observer of the people and events around her. She struggles, without success, to overcome feelings of inferiority and sees herself as the eternal outsider whose earnest efforts are never quite good enough to win either approval or respect from those around her.

This seemingly ill-matched pair is an intriguing combination. Their relationship ebbs and flows as they struggle to overlook class differences and work together. Havers respects Lynley tremendously and longs to be his friend as well as his colleague. Lynley, at times impatient with Havers’s intransigence and at other times awestruck by her unerring police instincts, is oblivious to her need. He maintains a professionally cordial relationship with her (most of the time), but is unaware of his unconscious reinforcement of embedded class distinctions that, apparently, will never disappear. Other members of Lynley’s intimate circle are much more sensitive to Barbara than he is and they try to welcome her into their circle.

One of Lynley’s oldest friends, a former lover who eventually tossed him aside and married his best friend, is Deborah St. James. Deborah is a character whom George needs to flesh out more fully. In the first few books of the series, Deborah agonized, ad nauseam, over her inability to have a child. This storyline got tedious after awhile, and I was grateful when George finally resolved it. Deborah, a member of the privileged class, nevertheless struggles with feelings of inadequacy. This struggle is common to most of George’s female characters, regardless of their social standing. Presumably, George is making the point that gender issues often transcend those of class.

Deborah’s husband, Simon St. James, is inexplicably boring. As a young man, he was crippled in a car accident in which a drunken Lynley was at fault. Simon is unflappable. The reader never witnesses him expressing frustration over his significant disability. Moreover, in one scene in which Lynley is inappropriately and unconscionably rude to his wife, St. James barely raises his voice in her defense. St. James, a forensics expert, has the potential to be a fascinating character, as he could provide significant insight into the struggles of the disabled as they fight for acceptance and respect in a world that often patronizes and pities them. George needs to work with him a lot more.

Lynley’s recently murdered wife, Helen, began as a bland, spoiled spendthrift, jetsetter and airhead. Early in the series, Helen embodied all of the worst qualities of the British elite. In more recent books, however, Helen’s moments of introspection were priceless. Moreover, she was the member of Lynley’s circle who most warmly welcomed Havers into their midst. It’s a shame that she got killed off just when she was becoming interesting.

Two other significant characters are Azhar, Barbara's landlord, and Hadiyyah, his young daughter. They are east Asian immigrants who provide a social context for Barbara outside of her workplace. Azhar offers interesting insights to the conflicts that arise when immigrants raise children in new cultures. Azhar is very traditional and "old country," and Hadiyyah* is becoming very much a child of Britain.

The final character I will mention is Winston Nkata, a black policeman of Caribbean descent who works with Lynley and Havers. Nkata is a fellow from a rough background who has made a success of his life. He and Havers respect each other, but, occasionally, their career interests conflict. This creates some interesting social and professional dynamics for them.

These are the principal characters in the series. While George’s development of these characters has been uneven, she has created an interesting cast from a range of class and ethnic backgrounds. Thus, they provide her with a solid foundation for exploring a rich array of class, ethnic and gender issues. I look forward to seeing what George will do with these riches.

Another thing I like about the series is that George’s plots are generally well-constructed. Each book is complete and does not require familiarity with the others. One can pick up any one of them and immediately become immersed in a coherent story with a satisfying resolution. Moreover, she sets scenes as well as anyone. This is testimony to a) the depth of her research and b) her eye for detail. When one reads George’s books, one clearly visualizes the characters and clearly sees the action unfold. This is unquestionably an area of strength for George.

Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about George’s writing is her ability to plumb the depths of human emotion and relationships. She has a wonderful command of the English language and she uses it to artfully convey powerful scenes, images and feelings. One scene that stands out, from relatively early in the series, is the discussion in which Deborah and Simon finally put to rest the issue of childbearing. Simon’s description of how he can’t bear to try for another child, because every time they lose a child, he loses a piece of her, is spellbinding. Incidentally, this is Simon at his best too.

Another scene that stands out is the one in which Lynley finally gets over his fury for what he perceived as Havers’s insubordination. In the previous book (Deception on His Mind), Havers had shot at a superior officer in order to save a child from drowning. But Lynley just could not comprehend Havers’s account of her actions – he just saw her as unwilling to abide by essential rules. As it happens, in this book (In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner), Lynley bent the rules to help out an old friend. The information Lynley provided eventually compelled the friend to commit suicide. At the end of the book, Lynley says to Havers that, when she bent the rules, a life was saved. In contrast, when he bent the rules, a life was lost. On the whole, he says, he’d rather have her record than his. This was a moving resolution to a conflict that festered throughout the entire book. It was a powerful moment of introspection for Lynley and a beautiful moment of reconciliation between the estranged partners.

Perhaps George’s most powerful scene to date occurred in With No One as Witness, when Helen Lynley was on her deathbed. Lynley’s anguish throughout this impeccably detailed ordeal is palpable. Anyone who can read this passage without breaking into tears has a heart of stone. Moments like these, when she exposes the human heart, are when George is at her best. Moments like these are what keep her fans coming back for more.

It’s been fun watching George's talents develop throughout this series. In my view, her weakest effort was A Traitor to Memory (which, ironically, followed two of her best books). Her latest entry in the series is not quite as good as its predecessor (With No One as Witness), but it is, nonetheless, engaging. I hope that George’s next volume will return to the characters to whom readers have grown attached, for they are her bread and butter. Sometimes variations in diet are welcome diversions, but, eventually, consumers like to return to the staples that have proven to be tried and true.

* An astute commenter (see below) pointed out that Hadiyyah is not an immigrant. I stand corrected on that point.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Noble's Gold

Author: W.C. Craddock
Publisher: Inkwater Press
ISBN: 1-59299-219-6

Sam Noble, a low-level government employee approaching retirement, has started writing the novel he always dreamed about. Unsure what he should write about, Sam takes a friend’s advice and begins writing random passages that he intends to stitch together later (p. 29). Drawing from sources in science, history, religious studies, economics, and various other disciplines, he contemplates the role of gold as a treasured substance and as the basis of monetary systems. Over a period of several months, Sam cranks out his book and emails chapters to an old wartime buddy, blissfully unaware that their correspondence has drawn the attention of American intelligence agencies. In an eerie coincidence, Sam’s book contains parallels to the clandestine work of a government committee. Their mission: to assess the feasibility of mining an extraterrestrial source of gold that will expand and stabilize the American economy. These agents must establish whether Sam is a terrorist, a spy, an average citizen or a harmless kook. To protect the government’s interests and ensure that Sam’s book will never be printed, they covertly buy from him all publishing rights. Shortly afterwards, a nuclear explosion in Jerusalem sets off an international crisis. This compels the American government to discard secrecy and immediately pursue its extraordinary economic plan. As the story closes, the world embarks on an international, interplanetary race for gold and Sam takes his book money and retires to a quiet life in Brazil.

Throughout Noble’s Gold, Craddock utilizes the technique of embedding one story within another. Unfortunately, he does not employ this device effectively. In order for the method to succeed, both storylines must engage the reader. Moreover, the reader must be able to discern clearly which of the two is the principal storyline. Since neither characteristic is present in Noble’s Gold, the book – totaling 801 pages – suffers from a serious lack of coherence. I will discuss these points in turn.

First, Sam’s novel, the embedded story-within-a-story, is a rambling mess. Early on, it appears that his main character, Duke Mitchum, will be engaged in an interesting scheme to avenge himself against the corporate employers who made him the scapegoat for their failures. Unfortunately, this storyline is abandoned. Instead, Duke’s quest for the information he needs to carry out his plan is merely a ploy that allows Craddock to fill hundreds of pages with essays on a wide range of topics: history, religion, geology – almost anything goes. The problem with this is that readers generally do not expect novels to be comprised almost entirely of essays. Rather, they expect characters to act and interact. They expect a plot to move forward to a conclusion. And they expect conflict, climax and resolution. Action, interaction, plot, conflict and resolution are woefully absent in this storyline. While the essays in this book may be interesting (more on this later), their form is poorly suited to be the primary substance of a novel. Thus, this storyline is an abysmal failure.

Second, Sam’s story gets scant attention. This story, summarized in the opening paragraph of this review, forms, at most, 30% of the book’s content. Moreover, since most of this material also takes the form of essays rather than character action and interaction, the reader may be excused for being uncertain whether Sam’s story is, indeed, the primary storyline.

Several hundred pages into the book, the government agents who have been investigating Sam conclude that he is merely a badly educated hayseed, with limited writing skills, who happened to come dangerously close to uncovering the truth that they themselves are researching. This device, in conjunction with the previously noted advice from Sam’s friend, allows Craddock to disingenuously acknowledge and justify his book’s weakness. This is astonishing! Surely Craddock, if he were truly interested in writing a novel, did not require several hundred disjointed pages to make the point that Sam is an untalented wannabe! It seems that Craddock’s novel is not intended to be a story at all; it is, rather, a cloak in which to garb the essays he wants to publish.

Since Sam Noble hardly ever appears in this book, and hardly ever acts, and hardly ever speaks, it is difficult to develop any interest in him. Considering the book’s excessive length, surprisingly little attention is given to developing his, or any other, character. In fact, this book has stunningly few characters. To say that all of them are bland is a gross understatement. Like Sam, they say little and do less. Consequently, the book is bereft of either dialog or action. It is peopled with a handful of characters who rarely interact and even more rarely do anything. Furthermore, on those few occasions when they do speak, they don’t have conversations. Instead, they usually speak in lengthy paragraphs and lecture each other.

In addition to the unrelenting dullness of the characters and the ghastly dialog, the story does not engage the reader because there is no action. Note, for example, this insipid account of the American government’s surveillance of Sam’s home:

“On a couple of occasions, federal agents were almost caught inside Noble’s Vienna small townhouse where they had entered under ‘sneak and peak’ to poke around, by Noble and his wife, but had managed to duck out the back door in the nick of time” (p. 736).

Are you kidding me? Where’s the confrontation between the irate citizen and the government agents who have violated his home and his civil rights? This scene (a term I am using loosely here) is ripe with potential for both plot and character development. Sadly, neither occurs at any point in this book. The entire tome is written in the same dry, quasi-academic style as this sample passage.

Finally, I must note that few of the ideas contained in Noble’s Gold are uniquely Craddock’s. For example, his discussion of early Christianity is remarkably similar to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code account. It is not plagiarized, but the correspondence is undeniable. If you’ve already read Brown’s book, you needn’t bother with Craddock’s. Brown did it first and he did it better. And he did it within the context of a novel that actually works as a novel. Unfortunately, Craddock’s work does not succeed as either a collection of original essays or as a novel. My advice: keep your money in your purse and leave this one on the bookstore shelf.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Author: Richard Haines
Publisher: Beaufort Books
ISBN: 978-0-8253-0510-8

Jon Phillips is a smart, handsome, successful Wall Street trader with a plan to get rich quickly and retire before the age of 40. The plan is bold, risky and illegal. When it fails in a spectacular manner, Jon is publicly disgraced, unemployed and racing around the world to stay alive. It turns out that a sizeable chunk of the money Jon lost belonged to the Russian mob. They want their money returned, or, in lieu of cash, Jon's life. Jon's race for survival takes him from New York, to England and Australia. As he runs, he encounters friends and enemies and confronts disturbing truths about the man he has become. Can he outwit his pursuers and survive? And if survives, can he salvage anything worthwhile from the shambles of his life? These two questions lie at the heart of Jon's story.

Chameleon is a fast-paced adventure that grips the reader's attention quickly and never lets go. Hains draws on his inside knowledge of high finance to create his main character and set the scene for that character's downfall. He describes the physical, social and psychological atmosphere of the trading floor exceptionally well and his descriptions of the social and geographical features of New York, England and Australia are similarly well done. He has a nice knack for setting his scenes and helping the reader see what he sees.

The book's main character, Jon Phillips, is charming and egotistical, engaging and infuriating, affectionate and selfish. He is a full-bodied, complex character who elicits both the reader's sympathy and distrust. Jon may be a good drinking buddy, but he's not the guy you'd want your sister to marry. The principal secondary characters, Victoria and Penny, are less intriguing but still likeable. Unfortunately, however, the villains are relentlessly evil and boring.

Chameleon's plot is fairly believable, but there are some significant difficulties. Given Jon's life of ease and affluence, his abilities to facilely change identities and readily disappear are inexplicable. His uncanny aptitudes for repeatedly outwitting and outfighting tough, hardcore criminals are similarly suspicious. And his remorseless brutality in dispatching his enemies is disconcerting. At points, Jon seems to be Wall Street's James Bond: running and hiding where he wishes, maiming and killing as needed, and bedding beautiful women at will. And, like Bond, he always emerges victorious and, usually, unscathed.

Hains expounds on Jon's adventures much more successfully than his introspection. Jon's moments of self-examination are rare, brief and superficial. One can't help wondering why Hains bothered developing this aspect of his character at all. Perhaps he should have just written a straightforward adventure story with a larger-than-life hero and left it at that. Nevertheless, Chameleon is a fairly good first novel. Readers who like thrillers probably will enjoy Chameleon.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Poetry Confessions

Author: John G. Briscoe
ISBN: 0-7414-2926-8

In Poetry Confessions, John Briscoe introduces his new art form, Creative Art Poetry Story (CAPS), which “combines visual art and poetry to tell a story in a unique new way” (p.1). Each poem is accompanied by complementary artwork. And, occasionally, poems are graphically arranged so that they are both textual and visual works. “Gentleman’s Farewell Tease,” (p. 69) is an obvious example of one such graphic poem. In this collection, the poems combine to tell a fictional story of a doomed love affair.

The first thing a reader will notice is that Briscoe’s poems do not adhere to traditional forms. This is not necessarily bad. Many skilled poets have demonstrated that free verse is a flexible tool that is well suited for contemporary poetic expression. In Briscoe’s case, his irregular meters and stanzas, and his unique rhyme schemes, are sometimes clever and refreshing. Note, for example, this couplet:

Starting over takes a lot of compromising.
We both are good at prioritizing (p. 28).

The cadence created by this couplet’s irregular meter is distinctive and charming. And the unusual rhyming of the words “compromising” and “prioritizing” is creative. Passages such as this reveal that Briscoe is quite comfortable working with words and is able to write in a uniquely expressive manner.

Unfortunately, refreshing moments like these are sometimes offset by lapses into truly hackneyed passages, such as this one:

. . . falling in, and out, of love,
and asking forgiveness from the heavenly Father above (p.4).

The “love-above” rhyme is nauseatingly overused in religious poetry and song lyrics. That rhyme, plus the conjunction of the phrases “falling in, and out, of love” and “heavenly Father above,” struck me as an instance in which the author resorted to using well-known, well-worn phrases instead of creating unique ways to express his ideas.

Briscoe’s greatest strength as a writer is that he explores and expresses a wide range of emotions. He writes, sometimes with brutal honesty, about euphoria, despair, anger, joy, loss, contrition and everything in between. Such writing takes tremendous courage and self-confidence.

Briscoe’s greatest weakness as a poet is that, apparently, he can’t live with rhyme and he can’t live without it. The English language lends itself readily to rhyme, which is why so many English-language poets employ it. While this amenability to rhyme is one of the English language’s greatest assets, it is also the source of an extraordinary amount of banal verse. Many English-language poets know, in their heads, that poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme. Nevertheless, it’s extremely difficult to escape the notion, in their hearts, that poetry ought to rhyme. At times, Briscoe seems to be stuck in this quandary. The result is that much of his rhyme appears to be accidental or incidental rather than intentional. It is not unusual for him to waiver between rhymed and unrhymed lines within the space of one poem, or even within a stanza. This inconsistency is disconcerting. If, in a particular poem, he intends to reject rhyme, then he should reject it throughout. If, in a particular poem, he intends to employ rhyme, then he should employ it with discipline and consistency throughout. In their current forms, many of the poems in this collection are passionate and expressive, but incoherent as poetry.

I admire Briscoe’s passion and his willingness to explore the complexities, frailties and imperfections of human relationships. He is an able writer and I look forward to seeing him develop his voice and style in the coming years. Poetry Confessions is more compelling as a story, however, than as a collection of poetry. If you are looking for good poetry, you won’t find very much of it in this book. If you enjoy delving into new story forms, however, you may find Poetry Confessions intriguing.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

How Children Become Violent

Author: Kathryn Seifert, Ph.D.
Publisher: Acanthus Publishing
ISBN: 1-933631-48-1

It seems that hardly a month goes by in which Americans don’t hear of violence involving children. Sometimes, children assault or kill adults. Often, adults assault and kill children. And far too often, children assault and kill other children. Repeatedly, we gather in our lunchrooms, on our subways or in our churches and ask each other: Why did this happen? What is this world coming to? What can we do to prevent this from happening again?

In How Children Become Violent, Dr. Kathryn Seifert has provided some answers to these questions. In the first section of the book, Seifert discusses violence and disrupted attachment patterns. This section is filled with anecdotal evidence from Seifert’s own travel and experiences, plus an array of statistical evidence. Seifert posits that a significant cause of violence occurs when children do not have opportunities, very early in life, to development normal, healthy attachment relationships with caregivers. The reasons for these disruptions are varied and the consequences, frequently, are severe. Seifert bases her theory on lessons learned in more than three decades as a clinician, as well as an extensive body of research conducted in the past several decades by many scholars. Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six-Stage Theory of Moral Development provides a particularly significant foundation for Seifert’s theory. Linking her theory to Kohlberg’s, she uses the latter’s ideas as the basis for her analyses of some well-known American serial killers, such as Ted Kacynski, Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.

In the second section of the book, Seifert discusses means for assessing whether children (and adults who survived troubled childhoods) suffer from disrupted attachment patterns or other problems. This section is filled with brief descriptions of various instruments that measure psychological health.

In the third section, Seifert describes various treatment methods for working with children and adults who suffer from disrupted attachment patterns. Similar to her discussion of the assessment tools, Seifert’s discussion of each treatment is brief.

The book’s final chapter, written by a colleague of Seifert’s, discusses a school-based mental health program in which school districts and families can work together toward early diagnosis and violence prevention. Throughout the book, Seifert emphasizes that families and communities must be involved in preventing childhood attachment disruptions. In Seifert’s experience, it is not enough to treat children who suffer from disrupted attachment patterns. Their families, particularly their primary caregivers, must be involved in the treatment and often require treatment themselves. Moreover, since violent children frequently harm others outside of their families, violent children are ultimately a community concern. School-based programs offer a natural juncture for families and communities to work together.

Overall, Seifert’s book is filled with a wealth of interesting material. Unfortunately, I had difficulty determining what audience Seifert intends to reach with this book. The first section, with its wealth of anecdotal material, is written in a manner that appeals to lay people. Nevertheless, Seifert includes some solid scholarly information here. This is not mere psychological pabulum for the masses. The second and third sections, however, appear to be addressed to professional audiences. The second section is reminiscent of the literature review one finds in research papers, theses and dissertations. Much of the information is rather technical and would appeal primarily to scholars and practitioners in the field of psychology. The third section, with its interesting descriptive overviews of treatment methods, seems too superficial to offer much for practicing professionals and scholars. It could, however, be useful material for college students who may be searching for their particular professional niches.

Another indication of Seifert’s apparent confusion regarding her intended audience is the inclusion of material concerning childhood violence in countries other than the United States. To be sure, this is fascinating and important information. Unfortunately, however, Seifert does not tightly tie these issues together with the rest of the book, which focuses almost exclusively on an American context. Ordinarily, I would heartily applaud Seifert’s effort to avoid the cultural myopia that afflicts many Americans. In this case, however, Seifert’s message would be clearer if her focus was more centered.

How Children Become Violent should be of interest to lay people with a strong interest in psychology, criminal justice and the like. Be warned, however, that you’d better be familiar with research methodology and lingo, because the book’s middle section is laced with it. The book should also be of interest to college students majoring in psychology, criminology, or other related fields, who are exploring possible specific directions for their careers, as it provides a good basic grounding in the psychology of violence. As Seifert admits, there is much more work to be done in this field. To her credit, she’s taken a solid first step in analyzing and documenting an acute problem. More importantly, she’s also pointed out possible directions for solving that problem. These are achievements for which all of us should be grateful.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Sex Secrets of an American Geisha

Author: Py Kim Conant
Publisher: Hunter House Publishers
ISBN: 089793-490-3

Are you a single woman who is ready to settle into marriage? Conant assures you that, if you follow her advice, you can achieve that goal within twelve to eighteen months.

Are you a married woman seeking to reignite the sparks of passion in your marriage? Conant assures you that, if you follow her advice, you can achieve that goal.

The key, in both cases, is to become an American geisha.

According to Conant, the Asian geisha is an independent businesswoman, an entertainer who rarely has sex with her clients, whose job is simply to help men relax and feel positive about themselves as men. She achieves these goals by establishing a pleasing, feminine contrast to their masculinity. When she does her job well, they seek her company, rather than another geisha’s, again and again. Similarly, Conant’s American geisha is an independent, classy, sexy woman who attracts men to her so that she will be able to choose from among several suitable candidates the one whom she wishes to marry.

In Conant’s view, the idea that geisha are submissive and passive is mistaken. Even though geisha are feminine, cordial, pleasant women to be with, they are also women who think and work independently, set goals for themselves and carefully map out the plans they will follow to reach those goals. They are strong women who are capable of thinking and acting autonomously and they only spend time connecting with “good” men who highly value their company.

The first section of Conant’s book deals with developing “geisha consciousness,” by which Conant means becoming aware of one’s self-worth and sexuality as well as assessing one’s beauty and femininity. She cautions her readers not to seek conformity to an unrealistic body type. Instead, she suggests that all women should seek to reach and maintain “ideal” weights for their particular frames. Additionally, she stresses emphasizing one’s most attractive features by careful use of wardrobe, cosmetics and good grooming rather than surgery. She deals with beauty, particularly weight management, in more depth in the book’s third section.

The second section of the book deals with sex secrets that will keep men coming back to one rather than seeking out another mate. In this section Conant explicitly discusses a variety of sexual techniques and emphatically does not recommend promiscuity. Instead, she stresses that a sexual relationship should develop alongside of a companionable relationship that progressively reaches deeper stages. Just as the Asian geisha will only have sexual relations with clients who make significant commitments to her, the American geisha will only have sex with partners whom she is willing to consider marrying. And some may choose to refrain from intercourse until marriage. If an American geisha knows that a particular man is not one she considers a suitable marriage partner, then she should not waste either her time or his in a dating or sexual relationship that will ultimately be futile.

The book’s third section deals with planning for marriage. Conant suggests that her readers should identify and write down specific goals they wish to achieve in love and marriage as well as in their personal and professional development. She further advises them to write down precise attributes that they desire in their mates and emphasizes, here and throughout the book, that American geisha should only spend time with men who are good for them. Since the exact characteristics of a “good” man will vary for different women, they must articulate their relationship goals if they hope to use their dating and courtship time wisely.

This is also the section where Conant outlines fully her “plan” for weight control. This plan is based primarily on self-awareness. Conant does not prescribe a particular diet or exercise regimen. Instead, she advises her readers to monitor their weight on a daily basis, eat sensibly and adopt a moderate exercise program that suits them. Generally speaking, the theme of the entire section is self-awareness. The American geisha is aware of her physical, psychological, emotional and social needs, attributes and preferences.

The final section of the book deals with dating, love and marriage. Conant stresses that the goal of an American geisha is an enduring marriage, not a lavish wedding. Accordingly, she offers common-sense “rules” for maintaining a loving relationship. Some of these are addressed to women, some to men and others to couples. Conant advises that the American geisha’s highest priority, regardless of whether she is a soccer mom or a CEO, is to ensure that her husband is happy and fulfilled in his relationship with her. It is when she keeps this priority in its proper place that the American geisha will be most fulfilled.

Sex Secrets of an American Geisha does not contain any groundbreaking research or new data. Certainly, all of the information contained in this book can be found in dozens of other sources. And Conant is humble and honest enough to include, and recommend, a detailed list of the references she utilized in her research. The appeal of Sex Secrets lies in Conant’s creative ability to take a fairly ordinary body of knowledge and wrap it in the glamorous framework of the geisha mystique. Conant successfully uses this framework to draw in her readers and hold their attention while she offers practical advice. Even though this book is addressed primarily to single women, married women will likely find some useful hints here too. Who knows? Maybe men will enjoy it too!

Sex Secrets of an American Geisha: How to Attract, Satisfy and Keep Your Man (Hunter House Publishers). Available in bookstores; may be ordered directly by calling 1-800-266-5592.